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Commercial Geospatial Processing Goes Underwater

July 1, 2014
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

U.S. Navy submarines are tapping Google Earth to generate a common operational picture.

  • U.S. Navy personnel use an experimental mockup of a submarine situational awareness system based on Google Earth. Navy officials aim to begin deploying the geospatial information system on Virginia-class submarines next year.
     U.S. Navy personnel use an experimental mockup of a submarine situational awareness system based on Google Earth. Navy officials aim to begin deploying the geospatial information system on Virginia-class submarines next year.

The U.S. Navy submarine force is moving to use a commercial geospatial information product to provide an integrated data picture to its crew members. The undersea fleet is striving to implement Google Earth as a common geospatial foundation across all systems aboard its submarines.

The new geospatial display system will allow sailors onboard submarines to view water depth, sonar contacts, distance from land, operational areas and forward-course tracks. Not only would all this information be displayed visually, but the same operational picture also would be visible to anyone at a console throughout the boat.

“This really provides a way for the command team to have a better situational awareness, a better understanding of the whole picture with less effort,” says Peter Scala, technical director of advanced development for undersea systems, Integrated Warfare Systems (IWS5A). His office develops software for submarine sonars and combat systems as well as for surface ships and surveillance platforms.

This effort represents a departure from traditional acquisition program profiles, Scala attests. His office receives input from the fleet, and it builds the system according to high-level requirements. Peer groups and national-level experts are playing a role in its development. The goal is to generate a substantial improvement in capability that the fleet will want quickly.

Quentin Finney, Navy and Marine Corps sales manager at Google, relates that the spark that launched Google onto U.S. Navy submarines came when a retired surface warfare officer visited a submarine and realized how submarine displays lacked the visibility available on surface ships. Google then began to experiment with three-dimensional visualization systems using Google Earth.

Finney points out that a Virginia-class submarine has 36 screens in its control room, and six of them have a geospatial foundation that is not common today. “When a person moves from one system to another, the only place that data is fused together for a comprehensive picture is in someone’s head,” he states.

“Taking data in its raw form, and repeatedly looking at different data points in its raw form, doesn’t give you the same kind of picture that you get when you put that data in a geospatial context over time,” Finney observes.

He notes that Google has been working with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for a long time. In addition to its geospatial solutions, Google offers search solutions that enable looking through large datasets for key information, he says. Users also can exploit other tools, such as Google Apps for Government, a messaging and collaboration platform.

Scala relates that a few years ago, the chief of naval operations issued a directive to make sonars common. Every two years, his office generates a new software build for sonar and tactical control systems and the imaging system for submarines.

Onboard U.S. Navy submarines, several applications use geographic representations for tracking surface contacts, planning missions and plotting courses on a navigation chart. Nearly all of the eight applications use a different representation of the Earth, Scala observes, and the Navy was impelled to seek a common geographic element for all the systems.

This goal was coupled with a drive toward making submarine software more intuitive, Scala continues. Many sailors now are digital natives who have grown up with some of the newest commercial information technology capabilities, but when they report for duty, they are trained to operate 1980s technology with an operating system loosely based on Windows.

Scala relates that Navy experts examined several systems that offered digital representations of the Earth. These included Google Earth, Bing and NASA World Wind. All of the systems passed muster in terms of capabilities; but Bing is based on Microsoft, which does not run on U.S. submarines. Ultimately, Scala’s office continued with its experimentation, but it is moving toward Google Earth, he allows. This preference evolved in a recent evaluation that determined Google Earth had improved dramatically.

One asset benefiting Google Earth is that it has many users and developers, Scala points out. Applications continue to emerge from this community, and a number of government agencies also write applications for Google Earth that can be adapted for the submarine force. Google Earth now runs on Linux-based systems, he adds, and the Submarine Tactical Requirements Group endorsed Google Earth in this use.

Overall, the biggest advantage Google Earth offers is that its interfaces are highly intuitive, Scala states. This includes both the operator-machine interface and the presentation of information. “Everybody uses Google, everybody knows how to use it, and Google Earth has most of the same operator-machine interfaces,” he says. “The fact that it is intuitive and that it is shared across multiple subsystems—and that it is common—are the biggest advantages.”

The Navy provides the digital nautical chart (DNC) and hydrographic information, and Google Earth builds the globe for the Navy. “We don’t know what the limit is yet on the ability to take large amounts of data, reference it to a geographic area and then present it to the command team in a clear and intuitive manner,” Scala states.

A Google Earth server would be placed on the submarine, it would be running a Google Earth globe, and various applications would run on that Google Earth surface, Scala explains. These applications would include planning, tracking, contact management, environmental awareness and vulnerability displays, for example.

Finney allows that automating the consolidation of various types of data on a common geospatial foundation will allow operators to view vital information in the same context. “You can look at the sonar picture on top of the navigation picture, so you can answer the common navigation questions of ‘where am I, where am I going, and how am I going to get there?’” Finney states.

This common foundation, along with automation, has led to significant improvements in efficiency. For example, the digital current operations finder is inserted into an automated mission-planning application that has moved to Google Earth. What used to be a manual process has been shortened from days down to hours—in some cases, down to minutes, Finney offers.

For the long term, one goal is for mission planning to tap Google Earth to extract both classified and unclassified data for an unfamiliar area. And having a common geographic system on submarines and surface ships will enable common training of sonar operators, Scala points out. After training, they can opt for either realm without needing a new training regimen.

Another goal is to eliminate the 1980s trackball that serves as a user interface, Scala notes. The aim is to implement a multitouch system, although the Navy “is not there yet,” he says.

While the Navy currently aims to develop this system around Google Earth, that is contingent on being able to solve several remaining challenges. Making the technology work on sonar systems and tactical systems—each with more than a half-dozen applications—is a hurdle that must be overcome to succeed. The Ozone Widget Framework is addressing this need for several applications, and the Navy is directly coding some of the more complex applications.

Also, the Navy has been advised that the projection used by Google Earth “is not necessarily approved for navigation,” Scala divulges. “While we don’t intend at this point to use Google Earth for navigation, the fact that I can take an overlay or a mission plan from Google Earth—and since it uses the same DNC information as our navigator—if we tie that information to the DNC information, we then can transfer that to our navigation system. So, there is a correspondence back and forth between our navigation system and all the tactical work we do with Google Earth.”

Small, independent developers are working to help solve the challenges, Scala says. “Is it easy? No. It’s taken us probably six months of steady effort to get to where we are now, and we probably have two or three more months of steady effort to get an operable system we can integrate,” he warrants.

Scala offers that his team has an alternative approach should it be unable to solve all of the Google Earth challenges. However, if all goes well, he hopes to implement the system with Google Earth in 2015.

After being developed and integrated on a running set of hardware, software is delivered to PEO Submarines and its sonar, tactical control and imaging program offices. They then produce the system and provide continuous support as well as build the hardware and ship it to the fleet, Scala explains.

Scala says Technology Insertion (TI)-14 will feature multitouch hardware, and the next iteration of software will add the ability to use that multitouch hardware. In 2016, Google Earth will be included in advanced processing build (APB)-15, a biennial software delivery, running on TI-14 hardware—processors, switches and networks. Then, TI-16 will appear, and APB-15 will run on it. Google Earth will be in APB-17, which should be fully multitouch enabled.

“We plan to engage with a number of government agencies already using Google Earth to survey the applications they have and see which ones make sense to build into the system,” Scala notes. These might include capabilities that permit submarine commanders to learn facts about onshore assets and demographics, for example.

Finney expresses that continuing developments in the Google Earth product will offer steady upgrades to the Navy. “As we release new capabilities, new feature sets, new functionality, the Navy will benefit directly from that,” he says.

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